The influence of linguistic experience on pitch perception in speech and non-speech sounds

Tessa Bent, Ann R. Bradlow, and Beverly A. Wright

How does native language experience with a tone or non-tone language influence pitch perception? To address this question 12 English and 13 Mandarin listeners participated in an experiment involving three tasks: (1) Mandarin tone identification a clearly linguistic task where a strong effect of language background was expected, (2) pure-tone and pulse-train frequency discrimination - a clearly non-linguistic auditory discrimination task where no effect of language background was expected, and (3) pitch glide identification - a non-linguistic auditory categorization task where some effect of language background was expected. As anticipated, Mandarin listeners identified Mandarin tones significantly more accurately than English listeners (Task 1) and the two groups' pure-tone and pulse-train frequency discrimination thresholds did not differ (Task 2). For pitch glide identification (Task 3), Mandarin listeners made more identification errors: in comparison with English listeners, Mandarin listeners more frequently misidentified falling pitch glides as level, and more often misidentified level pitch "glides" with relatively high frequencies as rising and those with relatively low frequencies as falling. Thus, it appears that the effect of long-term linguistic experience can extend beyond lexical tone category identification in syllables to pitch class identification in certain non-speech sounds. [Work supported by Sigma Xi and NIH]